So, I can't sew
I can reattach a button near enough to the right place so it gets into a buttonhole. I only got as far as cross-stitch bookmarks as a kid. The kids in my home and careers class were an unruly disaster, and I never learned how to use a sewing machine after the girl next to me sewed through her own finger. Jane Austen would shake her head that a grown woman can’t embroider a thing, let alone sew.
At the time Jane Austen wrote this letter, she was living in Southampton with her brother and his wife, her sister Cassandra, their mother, and friend Martha Lloyd. Cassandra had been with their brother Edward Knight’s family in Godmersham since October 1. Elizabeth Knight had her ninth child the week before she arrived, and then died suddenly the week after. Cassandra remained in Kent until February.
If Cassandra was not even in her own home, what sort of needlework could she have been wishing that she had Jane to help with?
Needlework was a social—almost communal—female activity. Women would bring it with them on social calls, and compare each other’s sources and patterns. How beautiful or decorative her “fancywork” was also was in indicator of her intelligence and taste---and, therefore, how marriageable she might be. Needlework was a core skill of female education and essential to female community. Some women, like Jane Austen, took great pride in their talent.
We are very busy making Edward's shirts, and I am proud to say that I am the neatest worker of the party.
Her nephew and future biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh said of her in 1870:
Her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent, and she might have put a sewing machine to shame.
But Cassandra wasn’t writing about wanting help with ornamental embroidery. Bingley may have talked about accomplished women netting purses, but women spent hours of their days sewing the clothes their families wore. The first sewing machine for residential use was decades away. She wasn’t trying to catch a husband or pass the time socializing with other ladies. Cassandra was taking care of the household---now without a mistress and the oldest daughter just sixteen---and had to help with the sewing.
Women spent hours of their days sewing new clothes and doing mending. It wasn’t work entirely relegated to servants. The sheer amount of sewing done—by hand—might shock us today. Jane and Cassandra often made their brothers’ shirts, even after they had left home and married. Nightwear and undergarments for men and women, shirts, caps, and children’s clothes were all the responsibility of the ladies of the house.
Think about what’s in your closets; can you imagine having to sew all of your partner’s shirts and your children’s clothes? Can you imagine spending hours after breakfast, when the light is best, making shirts for all the men in your extended family?
Cassandra would have brought her own workbag with her to Kent, a cloth bag that had all of her materials for sewing and any of her current projects. She would also have had a huswife or housewife, a foldable or rollable sewing wallet that kept her thread, needles, scissors, and other sewing tools.
Jane Austen made a housewife for her friend Mary Lloyd before their family moved from Steventon in 1792. She included this poem:
This little bag, I hope, will prove
To be not vainly made;
For should you thread and needles want,
It will afford you aid.
And, as we are about to part
T’will serve another end:
For when you look upon this bag
You’ll recollect your friend.
I feel like I deserve a round of applause when I sew a button or mend a fallen hem, so the idea of sewing being a large part of a woman's life is hard for me to relate to.
And it may not have been the drudgery. Sewing was something to do that was useful and wasn’t always so taxing that you couldn’t engage in conversation or listen while someone else read aloud. There was a sense of community surrounding the comparing of patterns, styles, and colors, and also in working alongside other women. And, clearly, women took great pride in their sartorial achievements:
I am quite pleased with Martha and Mrs. Lefroy for wanting the pattern of our caps, but I am not so well pleased with your giving it to them.